Relationship Building Strategy: Leveraging Shared Values

If you’ve been in sales for any length of time, you have probably heard the rapport-building advice that upon entering a prospect’s office, you should look for ways to connect with what is important to him/her on an individual level.  Pictures of family on his desk?  Talk about your kids.  Golf trophies on her bookshelf?  Tell her about your trip to Pebble Beach.  The theory?  Practicing this method provides common ground between you and the prospect–important for laying a relationship foundation.

It’s decent advice on the surface, as honing in on prospect passions is clearly an effective method for easing initial introductions.  However, deeper relationship building requires expanding this practice beyond the initial meeting.  Salespeople should move past thinking the method is just an ice-breaking gimmick. Instead, sales pros should focus on ways to build a deeper shared value framework between you as the seller and your prospect (or strategic partner) over the long-term.

Here’s one process for doing this:

  • Observe.  Make a concerted effort to become more aware of interests and values.
  • Capture.  Make notes about the interests/values you uncover and capture these in your contact database.
  • Review.  Revisit the values you have observed regularly so you’re tuned in.
  • Collect.  Be on constant lookout for things you know will pique your prospects’ interest or tap into mutually shared values.  Simple things like news articles or pertinent websites are great.
  • Share.  Commit to passing along content that will be of interest to prospects and reinforce shared values.
  • Be Genuine.  Don’t overdo it.  Trying to “force” shared values where none really exist will backfire on you.

Leveraging shared values takes some effort, but it will help you develop deeper prospect relationships–the absolute key to “owning an RFP” and winning deals.

Becoming a Star: Listening & Value Translation Skills

In our consulting practice, we’re often asked what individual qualities best predict success in government sales and business development.  In our research (and practical experience over the years) we’ve actually identified seven personal traits that contribute to effective selling within the complex government environment.  For a discussion of all of these, feel free to request our free white paper, “Seven Key Traits of Star Government Salespeople” (see the link on the right).  For now, let’s examine the strongest predictor of success:  listening and value translation.  We’ll break this down into smaller bites in order to better understand this vital factor.

First, star salespeople are perceived to be good listeners by their prospects.  No surprises here.  Buyers want their problems and needs to be truly heard.  Of course, listening means more than hearing.  Good listeners know what questions to ask to get to the core of prospects’ stated (or unstated) needs.  They listen for clues regarding the decision-making chain, and they effectively discern non-verbal cues.

Second, star sales people are able to translate prospect problems into meaningful customer “answers”.  Hearing is one thing.  Being able to diagnose problems, align needs with company offerings, and provide real solutions (an unfortunately overused term) is another.  Being “consultative” is a part of the equation, but only a part.  Persuasion is also a valid part of the value translation process.  We often see salespeople who, in striving to be consultative, fail because they get mired in prospect “wish lists” and details they don’t know how to address.  They are unable to persuade the prospect to adopt new ways of thinking (ways that are more aligned with their company’s offerings).  Star government salespeople don’t fall into this trap.

Third, star salespeople have learned to adapt their listening and value translation skills to the structured process of government selling.  While other salespeople might be turned off by the rigid procedures involved in government procurement, star government salespeople utilize this to their advantage.  They are comfortable with the playing field (and frankly know how to work the system within bounds).

A government salesperson’s ability to listen empathetically, and then translate products or service features into clear value for the buyer is essential for long-term success.  If you’re sitting around waiting for RFPs to be released before you begin selling, you’re too late.  Commit to getting in front of the RFP, building relationships, listening effectively, then translating prospect problems into solutions your company can provide.  You’ll find yourself with “star” status before long.

The RFP is finally out. NOW, you start to sell, right? Wrong.

Your reputation is your biggest selling advantage.

In the first chapter of our new book, Seven Myths of Selling to Government, we start out with what we consider one of the biggest myths of all: that RFPs drive government business.

Many companies come to us thinking that what they need to know in order to get government business is how to get wind of it when new RFPs come out. That’s the smallest fraction of it.

Our book has almost 30 pages of detail on what the real keys to winning RFPs are. But here’s a tidbit you can have right now: Make sure your reputation precedes you. When they get your RFP response, make sure they already know about your expertise and experience.  Even better, building a reputation can create opportunities to build relationships and potentially help guide the specifications.  YOUR specifications.

Building your reputation for expertise isn’t an overnight job. You can’t start when you get the RFP. You need to start now, in anticipation of RFPs to come 6 to 60 months from now.

How do you do it? There are lots of possibilities, but here are some ideas.

Publish a blog and a newsletter.

If you’re an expert, you need to show forth your expertise on your own turf, and there’s no better way to do it than to start a blog. With a constant focus on what problems you can solve for your prospects, write about how you’ve helped and who you’ve helped. Give advice in a concise, well-organized format (“Five Ways to . . .”). Do it at least weekly.

Blogs are essential to the expert, but they take discipline – and if writing is not one of your areas of expertise, it may take some staff or free-lance writing help. But it’s well worth it. Anything you do to capture attention is likely to lead people back to your blog, which, over time, should become a treasure chest of your accumulated wisdom and the best possible “advertisement” for your skill, smarts and accomplishments. (The key, by the way, is to make sure it never sounds like an advertisement.)

If you’re going to commit to a blog, make all that writing do double duty. Collect the best bits and put out a monthly newsletter. You can also solicit guest contributions from other experts, so you take on a little extra shine from their reflected glory.

Write for the trades.

When you get your writing act together on your own website and publication, consider seeking space in the publications that cater to your prospects. You should already be reading them: Government Product News, Government PROcurement, Government Technology News, Defense Industry Daily, etc., etc. Focus on one. Think about how you could help them fill their columns – trade publications are shorter on staff than ever before. You can pitch a single story to them, but think about what you’ll do for an encore. Your goal will be to become a regular contributor. If you have an idea for a column – on a topic you can sustain interest in issue after issue – that’s even better.

Your ultimate goal is to get readers to follow you from the pages of the magazine to the pages of your website, specifically your blog. So be sure you include the address of the site. Mention every now and then some juicy bit you’ve posted there that relates to the magazine topic at hand.

Get a speaking gig.

If you find this intimidating, think about the last few conferences you attended. How many rock stars were presenting? Few to none, would be our guess. A conference planner often has days of programming to fill, and usually starts with just a handful of good speaker names.

If you’ve established yourself as an expert in an appropriate trade publication, have a good topic and a compelling description of it, you stand a very good chance of getting at least a break-out session at a worthwhile meeting. If you have a knack for this, you can work your way up the food chain, to better spots (lunch speaker, keynote speaker) and better conferences.

Planning and a little bit of patience are in order. You need to start developing your themes and your voice on your blog. When you’ve got that down, expand from your “private” media to the trade media. When you’ve got a name there, you can go on to speaking and making presentations.

You don’t need to be world famous. You just need to be, in Steven Van Yoder’s phrase, “slightly famous” in the circles that include the issuers of the RFPs you’re interested in.

It doesn’t guarantee you’ll win them all. But it makes the selling job a lot easier. The critical first question, “Who the heck are these guys?” is answered before the proposal review committee even has to ask it.

What to Do About Contracting Delays and the End of the Fiscal Year

If you sell to the federal government, you’re entering the last month of its fiscal year.  Statistics show September has two times the number of contract awards on average more than other months.  Yet, it appears this year, contract delays will be high, and for many of you, September may not be a strong finish.  In an article in Washington Technology, Dawn Jordan provides some statistics originally produced by Input on the current state of contracting as we finish up the fiscal year:

  • In year-over-year comparisons, the number of awards for each of the first six months in 2011 was down versus the same month every year dating back to 2005.
  • Using the total number of awards made in 2010 as a guide; in the first six months in 2011, 30 percent of awards had been made.
  • Both the civilian and defense sectors have slowed but the greater impact has been on defense.
  • In each of the past three years, over 80 percent of the RFPs issued were awarded in 12 months. Based on the first half of 2011, it appears the percentage of RFPs awarded within 12 months will be closer to 65 percent.

There are a variety of reasons behind this.  Contracting staffs appear to be smaller.  The whole budget debate and continuing resolution process seems to have had a significant impact.  And the number of protests have increased over the last few years, causing award delays.

So what is a contractor to do during times like these?

Pedal to the Metal

First, don’t let off the gas with existing prospects.  You have to keep pushing forward, building relationships and highlighting customer value.  Know what is happening in procurement and where your deal stands.  In many cases, the procurement process will eventually unstick and you’ll be ready to move rapidly.

Build a Pipeline

Second, now is a great time to pursue new prospect relationships and build your pipeline.  While you’re visiting a current prospect (and hearing about yet another delay), ask who tin other agencies or departments might also benefit from having a problem solved.  Sometimes, it just takes asking.

Make New Friends

Third, while we’re thinking about relationships, now is a good time to build relationships with current/potential partners.  Government selling is all about teaming, and finding the right partner can make the difference between success and failure.  Too many times, contractors don’t have partners on their radar until they are scrambling to plug a hole in an RFP response.  Build relationships before you’re under the pressure of a proposal deadline.

The last month of the year can be a frustrating, but exhilarating time of the year.  This year, don’t let contract delays and budget wranglings get you down.  Build for the future.

No “I” in “Government Sales Team”: Creating High-Performance Selling Organizations

Porsche racing car at Hockenheim Ring, Niclas ...

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For many years, we have worked with and studied companies that sell products and services to government agencies.  Some of these have been highly effective organizations.  Others never really understood how to win in the space.

Want to know one of the strongest indicators of government selling success?  Well, it’s not the sales team’s ability to make slick presentations.  It is not cutting-edge marketing campaigns or great search engine optimization strategies. It is not a huge price advantage or airtight patents that fend off competitors.

No, one of the single strongest predictors of government selling success is the organization’s aptitude for energizing a team of people around revenue generating opportunities.   Now the “team” we refer to here extends beyond the Sales department.  Of course, they bear the ultimate responsibility for winning the business.  However, in the world of government markets, salespeople simply cannot do it alone.  Find a company that consistently wins government business, and you’ll find a company that has succeeded in aligning a variety of resources and disciplines to support the deal capture process.

In consulting with companies seeking to generate more government business, we follow a process of examining several key resource areas.  Our ultimate goal is to provide insights on ways to better align various departments in order to provide the best chance at winning more business.

Here are some of the key functional areas we examine and just a few of the critical questions we attempt to answer during the discovery phase.

Marketing (for lead generation, branding and product development input)

  • Are lead generation processes in place, targeted, and effective?
  • Are results measured?
  • Are managers held accountable?
  • Is the relationship with Sales or other areas strong, or does conflict exist ? Why?
  • Is branding consistent with and supportive of strategic goals?
  • Do marketing tactics/materials align with the sales process (do the right materials exist for each step in the sales process)?
  • Are broad-market needs making their way into product development?

Sales (for customer relationship-building, pain identification and value portfolio definition)

  • Is a clearly defined sales process adopted and well understood?
  • Are incentive/compensation plans aligned with goals?
  • Do salespeople have the right skills/traits/motivations?
  • Do salespeople know how to effectively diagnose prospect pain/fear/motivations?
  • Do they know how to align company offerings with prospect needs?
  • Can they effectively manage and nurture the variety of required relationships?

Sales Engineers (for technical clarity and detailed customer need assessments)

  • Do sales engineers have the right skills/traits/motivations?
  • Can they effectively support customer relationship-building?
  • Can they translate complicated technical details into non-technical concepts?
  • Can they accurately assess problems and pose realistic solutions?

Proposal Writers (to document the translation of company solutions into customer benefits)

  • Can proposal writers dissect a complex RFP and grasp how to communicate value?
  • Do they write effectively with clarity and accuracy?
  • Are they detail-oriented and committed to error-free work?
  • Are they able to create effective visuals that help tell a complex story?
  • Can they manage tight deadlines and work well under pressure?

Partners (to access unattainable deals and vehicles)

  • Does the partner provide a more favorable conduit to a customer segment?
  • Are procurement vehicles and labor rates appropriate?
  • Are appropriate agreements in place to protect all parties?
  • Are financial terms appropriate and motivating?
  • Does the relationship create clear value for both partners and for the customer?
  • Does adequate support exist between the parties?

Management (to set priorities/policy that can hurt or help you)

  • Does management understand the unique complexities of selling to government?
  • Do they send conflicting or changing messages on priorities and goals?
  • Does the company’s organizational structure and resource allocation support success?
  • Are compensation programs appropriate and adequate?

Business Intelligence (to manage and gauge market feedback)

  • Are processes in place to capture market feedback?
  • Are technology tools deployed to house and analyze this feedback?
  • Is analysis routinely injected into decision-making and product design?

A high-performance car will be slower, less efficient and less desirable to drive if its wheels are not well aligned and properly balanced.  The same holds true with high-performance organizations.  If any of the functional components highlighted above are out of step with the others, the result will be a less than optimal revenue-generating machine.

If your government market-focused organization needs a diagnostic, a tuneup or even a complete realignment, Government Selling Solutions (GSS) can help.  For more information, visit www.govsellingsolutions.com.

Government Needs Value More than Ever

As a guest on a Kansas City radio station a few days ago to talk about our book, “Seven Myths of Selling to Government“, I was asked how this could be a good time to sell to the government when the federal government is struggling to meet its obligations.  I think I startled the host when I said, “Are you kidding me?  Now’s a great time to sell to government…especially if you’re trying to break into the government market.”  It’s quite simple.  Now, more than ever, government buyers are looking for value.  That means they’ll be more open when you approach them with the value you offer.

Think of it in your own life.  When your personal budget is tight, aren’t you more aware of better ways to spend your money?  You don’t stop spending money, do you?  You look for ways to spend it more wisely.

You may run into people within the government who say, “Funds are tight, and we’re not in the market.”  Well, you’re talking to the wrong people.  Either they’re not really involved in buying your type of product or service, or these same people would have  brushed you off when tight government budgets weren’t in the news constantly.  Keep trying.

That is, keep trying if (a) you really have a product or service that will provide real value, and (b) you know how to articulate the value.  (These are two different things…equally important.)

This was a particularly fun radio interview.  The host even had his 12-year-old son on.  That is the show was fun until the 12-year-old stumped me on a question.  You can get to the radio interview here.

All the best,

Rick

The RFP is finally out. NOW, you start to sell, right? Wrong.

In the first chapter of our new book, Seven Myths of Selling to Government, we start out with what we consider the biggest myth of all: that RFPs drive government business.

Many companies come to us thinking that what they need to know in order to get government business is how to get wind of it when new RFPs come out. That’s the smallest fraction of it.

Our book has almost 30 pages of detail on what the real keys to winning RFPs are. But here’s a tidbit you can have right now: Make sure your reputation precedes you. When they get your RFP response, make sure they already know about your expertise and experience, already know your proposal will be worth considering.

Building your reputation for expertise isn’t an overnight job. You can’t start when you get the RFP. You need to start now, in anticipation of RFPs to come 6 to 60 months from now.

How do you do it? There are lots of possibilities. Here are some ideas.

Publish a blog and a newsletter.

If you’re an expert, you need to show forth your expertise on your own turf, and there’s no better way to do it than to start a blog. With a constant focus on what problems you can solve for your prospects, write about how you’ve helped and who you’ve helped. Give advice in a concise, well-organized format (“Five Ways to . . .”). Do it at least weekly.

Blogs are essential to the expert, but they take discipline – and if writing is not one of your areas of expertise, it may take some staff or free-lance writing help. But it’s well worth it. Anything you do to capture attention is likely to lead people back to your blog, which, over time, should become a treasure chest of your accumulated wisdom and the best possible “advertisement” for your skill, smarts and accomplishments. (The key, by the way, is to make sure it never sounds like an advertisement.)

If you’re going to commit to a blog, make all that writing do double duty. Collect the best bits and put out a monthly newsletter. You can also solicit guest contributions from other experts, so you take on a little extra shine from their reflected glory.

Write for the trades.

When you get your writing act together on your own website and publication, consider seeking space in the publications that cater to your prospects. You should already be reading them: Government Product News, Government PROcurement, Government Technology News, Defense Industry Daily, etc., etc. Focus on one. Think about how you could help them fill their columns – trade publications are shorter on staff than ever before. You can pitch a single story to them, but think about what you’ll do for an encore. Your goal will be to become a regular contributor. If you have an idea for a column – on a topic you can sustain interest in issue after issue – that’s even better.

Your ultimate goal is to get readers to follow you from the pages of the magazine to the pages of your website, specifically your blog. So be sure you include the address of the site. Mention every now and then some juicy bit you’ve posted there that relates to the magazine topic at hand.

Get a speaking gig.

If you find this intimidating, think about the last few conferences you attended. How many rock stars were presenting? Few to none, would be our guess. A conference planner often has days of programming to fill, and usually starts with just a handful of good speaker names.

If you’ve established yourself as an expert in an appropriate trade publication, have a good topic and a compelling description of it, you stand a very good chance of getting at least a break-out session at a worthwhile meeting. If you have a knack for this, you can work your way up the food chain, to better spots (lunch speaker, keynote speaker) and better conferences.

Planning and a little bit of patience are in order. You need to start developing your themes and your voice on your blog. When you’ve got that down, expand from your “private” media to the trade media. When you’ve got a name there, you can go on to speaking and making presentations.

You don’t need to be world famous. You just need to be, in Steven Van Yoder’s phrase, “slightly famous” in the circles that include the issuers of the RFPs you’re interested in.

It doesn’t guarantee you’ll win them all. But it makes the selling job a lot easier. The critical first question, “Who the heck are these guys?” is answered before the proposal review committee even has to ask it.